This article was first published in December 1999. The 206 GTi remains a very pleasurable memory - partly, because back then small cars were actually small...
Let's not start off with fancy introductions, vague analogies of questionable relevance to the subject at hand, and other wanky journalistic techniques. Let's simply say: the Peugeot 206 GTi is the best small sporty car we've ever driven. There - you can stop reading now!
Jamming a large engine into a small body to gain a performance advantage is a technique as old as the car itself. So take the 206 GTi's powerplant - a cooking DOHC 16 valve two litre; nothing fancy at 102kW and 194Nm. In fact, you can find much the same power and torque in the larger Pug 406. But in two litre guise, the 406 weighs in at 1315kg, while the teeny 206 tips the scales at 1050kg. Suddenly the power/weight ratio just got 25 per cent better... And using the relatively low revving engine (peak power at 6000, redline 6500 rpm) has further advantages: the 206 can be torqued along, working sedately and just sipping fuel. So is this just a boring car, one with an old man's engine and fancy, look-at-me body? Nah - a pretender it's not.
The 206 attracts attention wherever it goes. People smile and wave, others stare in wonderment. It's a happy car, in the way of the smiling front face of the Mazda MX5. The windscreen is enormous, plunging down to a bonnet that is out of sight of even the tallest driver - the view from behind the wheel is panoramic, marred only by the overly-thick (albeit distant) A-pillars. The level of styling detail is impressive: the cabin ventilation air intake grilles on the bonnet, the heavily sculpted rear bumper incorporating a central foglight, those cat's eyes headlights, the hugely wrapped-around rear lights. It's a shape that has zest, character - and practicality. Practicality? So beautifully integrated is the styling that it's not at all noticeable how tall the 206 is, but at 1430mm it's only 5mm shorter than a current Honda Legend. The benefits that flow from that stature can be felt in headroom, the seats' high hip points and the airy feel within. The side mirrors are enormous - they could be from Commodore or Falcon in dimensions, though not in styling...
The two doors are long and open wide, shutting with an unfortunate metallic clang. They incorporate two large pockets, the rearmost accessible by backseat passengers and the other incorporating a drink holder. Further drink holders can be found on the dropped-down glovebox lid, along with a sunglasses holder and other practical recesses. Less practical is the suede that's used on the door trims and glovebox lid, a fabric that could easily become soiled. The trim on the seats is quite different, a hard-wearing multicoloured fabric with leather side bolsters. And the bolsters do more than just support your bodyweight during cornering: they also contain side airbags for both the driver and front seat passengers. These occupants are further protected by dual frontal airbags, with the drivers' contained in the best looking airbag-equipped wheel you'll see in many a kilometre.
The centre of the dash houses the climate control display and buttons - we'd rather see the simple knobs used on lower-spec 206's than this difficult to use system - and down between the seats you'll find the electric window controls and joystick for the mirrors. Placing the window controls on the floor means that rear seat passengers can j-u-s-t reach them if required. The rear windows hinge outwards at their trailing edge, and the rear seat occupants are also cared for with a surplus of headroom, the provision of head restraints, and quite adequate legroom.
In front of the driver is a stylish array of dials. These incorporate an engine oil level indicator, engine oil temp (usually running within 10 degrees C of water temp) and a LCD digital display that can be toggled through tripmeter, odometer and service interval kilometres. The speedo uses odd increments - 30-50-70 km/h - making it somewhat difficult to read quickly when you confront a radar operator as you pop over the brow of a hill at 183 km/h.... Column stalks control the usual lights and wipers, with an added stalk interfacing with the indifferent quality CD/radio head unit.
The alloy spare wheel is stored under the car, freeing-up a substantial 760 litres of boot room. Folding the split rear seats can further enlarge the boot, however the seats do not lie flat without having their head restraints removed. Typical of the design thoroughness, the inside of the wide-opening hatch incorporates two handholds for shorter people. In summary, for a small 3-door hatch, it's as comfortable and practical interior as you're likely to find.
But this is a GTi forgodsakes - what does it drive like? Becoming acquainted with the road-dynamics of the 206 GTi is a little like forming a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. You have immediate impressions, a slight afterglow, a settling in period, and then long-term happiness - or hatred.
The immediate impressions are of a light clutch, overly long gearknob throw, and direct and quick steering. The relatively heavy power steering is superb: not too sensitive around centre that every bump becomes an involuntary steering input, but still quick enough that the turn-in can be judged precisely. So can the cornering line - would you like the wheels one inch or two inches inside the centre line? The strong bottom-end torque gives tractable throttle response - it's an easy car to get into and immediately drive fast, especially around corners. In fact any redblooded pedaller getting out after a quick trip around the block is sure to be laughing with the sheer glee of negotiating corners as if there are no limits.
But what of a longer term relationship? The alloy pedals are close together - so close that I drove around in socks for the first day - and the ride very firm. At high revs the engine passes both vibration and noise back through the controls - the all-alloy engine never feels like a sophisticated, modern mill. At times it could also be heard to detonate on the local premium unleaded fuel it demands. The front seatbelts catch against the seat adjustment mechanisms, and the stereo and high beam lights are lousy. On high-speed sweepers the handling can also become a little spooky. The throttle-off oversteer available from the torsion bar, trailing arm rear suspension - so helpful in getting you around low speed corners quickly - raises the hairs on the back of your neck when its steering intrusion feels imminent with slight throttle changes at 140....
But then you pass into the next stage of the relationship. This happened for me in one day of lots of kilometres. In the morning I journeyed 200 kilometres to the South Coast and back - good roads with open corners, and also tight and twisty broken bitumen goat tracks. While certainly firm, the suspension never degenerated into irritating jiggliness or crash-through bangs and groans; I returned feeling fresh and wanting more. Which was just as well, because that afternoon a photo shoot beckoned in the Barossa Valley, about the same return distance in the other direction! This time the bitumen and terrain were both wide and flat, the type where gusting crosswinds can upset many a car. But the Pug tracked truly all the way up to 210 km/h, the delightful steering just as good in these conditions as when negotiating 30 km/h hairpins.
That evening - after 450 kilometres - the 206 was again back in my driveway. I didn't feel tired, I didn't feel that I'd been consciously steering the car every metre of road, I didn't feel worn by road or tyre or engine noise. In fact, it felt rather more like I'd spent the day in a larger, far more mainstream vehicle. And any car that can mix both 'work' and 'fun' kilometres without even drawing breath can only be a good thing....
In the tight stuff, the car hangs on tenaciously, edging ever so gradually into understeer. A slight lift of the throttle will then cause the back to come out, initially in what feels like a rear wheel steering manner and then if applied more forcefully, into full tyre-sliding oversteer. It's the 'rear wheel steering' feeling that is a little unsettling at high speed; however, in these conditions it doesn't go any further than permitting a tightening of cornering line. Note though that we didn't get to drive the car in the wet - then it might be a more dramatic trait. The ABS brakes - 266mm vented discs at the front and 247mm solids at the rear - use large calipers and pull the car down strongly. However, hard braking applications at high speed require some steering correction, the car feeling a little yawish on its short wheelbase.
Peugeot claim a 0-100 in 8.6 seconds and a top end of 210; both seem reasonable on the basis of our measurements. They also suggest very good economy - and we saw a quite brilliant 8.1 litres/100km in hard driving. In typical conditions, most drivers will achieve far better than this.
Stylish, frugal, practical, competently fast and superb around corners... simply light-years ahead of cars like tarted-up Charades and Barina GSi's! Sure, at $31,400 it also costs more - but there's plenty of equipment to justify the price. The best sporty small car in Australia? - without a doubt.